An Interview with Dino Kužnik
Dino Kužnik is a New York based Photographer and Graphic Designer, originally from Slovenia, Europe. He uses photography as a medium to immortalize scenes that are aesthetically unique, with an emphasis on color and composition. Solitude is a driving factor behind Dino's photographs. His work reflects a peaceful state of mind, one only attainable after total immersion within the environment he works in. Experienced as a journalistic photographer and retoucher, he now mostly focuses on his personal body of work – a documentation of the American Landscape, whilst experimenting with different techniques.
We recently had a chat with Dino regarding his photography career.
Kristina Bao: How and when did you first start photographing?
Dino Kužnik : I was always messing around with our family point and shoot film camera on our family vacations, but it wasn’t until college when I got more serious about it. I bought my first ever digital SLR and shortly after started working as a journalistic photographer, studio assistant and retoucher. It was definitely a time of learning and growth.
Kristina Bao: What interested you at that time, and what made you eventually choose photography as your career?
Dino Kužnik: My grandfather had a lot of photo books and magazines, especially National Geographic Magazines all the way from the 60s, so spending time with him and browsing through all of those made me interested in nice imagery and photography - and that stayed with me. But also as I am a visual person and I was always interested in drawing, illustration, graphic design, cinematography, so I felt very attracted to photography and really wanted a camera to try it out. Eventually there was a graphic design position that got me to America, but I did photography on the side, for extra income and personal pleasure. It wasn’t until recently that I jumped into photography full-time, as I felt confident enough. So I choose this career just because I love the process of it, and doing what you love is something that we should all strive for.
Kristina Bao: Which past experience in your photography career inspired you the most? What was the story?
Dino Kužnik: I think one of the scariest, but also eye opening experiences was when I was working as a studio assistant in Ljubljana, Slovenia. The photographer I was working for told me I will be responsible for a shoot happening the next day as he had an assignment elsewhere - I almost shat my pants - as I always had him to fall back to on the shoots. We were taking portraits of politicians and there were around 12 people scheduled for the next day. I would have to take care of lighting, work with the make-up artist, direct the people and great them … I was so scared I could not sleep that night. I was one of the scariest moments ever for me … but it worked out great in the end. I did my job and handled all my responsibilities. I learned that day, that you have to be uncomfortable a bit or be put in a situation where you don’t feel comfortable, to grow … but then you go through the experience once, twice, three times and by the forth time it feels easy. So I try to not get too comfortable, just to feel a satisfaction or a feeling of accomplishment - I think that makes you a happier person.
Kristina Bao: So far in your career as a photographer, what is the best accomplishment you ever made?
Dino Kužnik: I would have to say that the shortlist for the Sony World Photography awards was something that gave me the confidence to show more of my personal work and I’m happy for that. Also exhibiting my work in the same place and time that Martin Parr was - was a bit eye watering - just because I am a huge fan of his work. But the biggest accomplishment comes to me in forms of work, or when somebody that wants to hire me says - you do your thing. I had a shoot recently with quite a big name in the entertainment industry (can’t talk about the name just yet as the project is not yet out) that was one of the best experiences to this day - I had complete creative freedom and I think we produced something special. It takes an artist to understand that creative freedom is important, and I really appreciate the people that know that.
Kristina Bao: Do you think any aspect of the neighbourhood you grew up in affected your artistic choice?
Dino Kužnik: No I don’t think it was the neighbourhood, but more so the westernization of my country. You see I am from Slovenia. We became a Democratic Republic in 1991 when we seceded from Yugoslavia and a huge westernized boom followed. So I grew up influenced by all these Western things - music, activities like skateboarding and snowboarding, fashion, movies, video games, etc. My series Shaped by the West is actually about that - how this time influenced me to be attracted to the american aesthetic - which you can see a lot in my photography. I’m releasing a book on it at the end of this year, but it is still a work in progress at this moment.
Kristina Bao: Your photographs tend to have a soft and worm spectrum of colours. How/why do you think was it developed when looking retrospectively?
Dino Kužnik: Good question. I think it’s hard to answer though, as my aesthetic developed organically over time. But it was definitely influenced by graphic design and I think maybe it’s because I always liked more pastel colors or a muted palette. Over saturated images never looked profesional to me and I have studied a lot of photographers and own a ton of photobooks, so I think that subcounsciously I got this look in my head that I liked and always tried to achieve.
Kristina Bao: You have an inclination for film photography. How was this preference developed?
Dino Kužnik: Yes I do shot a lot of my personal stuff on film and when I shoot for a job I would always try to shoot film and digital as a back-up, if there’s a possibility for that.
Film helped define my look and I also love the process when shooting film. You are more precise, more focused and not as distracted with looking at you LCD screen to review photos. So the process is a big part I think. Also there is just something about the film look that is so attractive to me … digital feels too sterile a lot of the times, to perfect if you must … especially when the industry is so focused on the sharpness of the lenses and all the technical aspects of the tools we use. A lot of times it feels like a joke to me … so I just go back to film cameras.
Kristina Bao: Many photographs you took convey an Old West sentiment, a feeling one gets when watching a movie like Once Upon a Time in the West. What do you think shaped this characteristic?
Dino Kužnik: Like I told earlier, it is the westernization of my home country of Slovenia, that had a huge impact on me and of course moving to the USA.
Kristina Bao: You are traveling a lot for photo shooting recently, any place you definitely want to go but haven’t yet? What aspect of that place attracts you?
Dino Kužnik: I saturated myself with this American aesthetic if you want to call it like that. I will always be going to the West, but I am also looking outwards. I really want to go to Asia and South America, as I have never been before. Especially Japan and Patagonia in Argentina and Chile are the two places that are very attractive to me visually and will visit them shortly.
Kristina Bao: When did you first decide to move to New York and why did you end up choosing to settle in the city?
Dino Kužnik: It was a graphic design position that made me move to the USA. First to San Francisco and then to New York. The design team in the company I was working at moved first to California and then to New York and I followed. I am glad I ended up in this city as it has so much to offer photography wise.
Kristina Bao: Photography has a “documentation” nature, and there are other artistic ways to document, like writing, movie, painting, just to name a few. What, according to you, is the most unique advantage of photographic documentation when comparing with others?
Dino Kužnik: I think it is conveying emotion or a feeling with the moment you immortalize - now that can be positive or negative, it can inform, educate, warn, etc. . That’s the power of photography. I think it is also very personal. For me example - you can see a lot of me in my captures. It’s the composition, the colors, the subject … that’s a projection of my state of mind. So I love how deeply personal it can be. I don’t like to compare it, as everything is very special and unique to the person using it for artistic expression. But I do feel that the ultimate art form is film though and I hope I am one day able to produce something with the moving image. I have a project planned for end of this year :) but again, too early to talk about that.
Kristina Bao: You photographed places that are more or less abandoned, like empty streets, old stores, washed-out billboards, etc., and you got this Motel Series. What aspects about these places attract you?
Dino Kužnik: The feeling of content and exploration I get when I go on a solo road trip to document my surroundings. I always imagine what sort of history these things, objects or places had and how time changed their look - I like to call it that the texture of time.
I also very much like to observe and document the mundane, and present in a new view or an appealing composition, so the moundanity dissapears and the viewer sees something mundane in a different more compelling way.
Kristina Bao: In your understanding, do you think it is your responsibility as a photographer to present the story in your photographs? In other words, do you believe the idea that photographs tell their own story?
Dino Kužnik: That totally depends on what you want to achieve and what kind of story or emotion the photographer want to tell with the photograph or the series. For example a photograph can be a very unimportant or even unimpressive on it’s own, but in a series of photographs it can form an amazing visual narrative and tell a great story, but in contrast there are also some amazing photographs that can stand on their own and are a huge part of human history.
Personally I think I was more of an image maker in the past, but am trying to move more in a story driven way, for my future projects. I am not just wandering aimlessly all the time (although I love to do that), but actually researching projects in advance and having more of narrative driven approach. For example I found an amazing deteriorating town (from a friends recommendation) in California on one of my travels. Now I am in the stages of researching it and braking down, what is so interesting about it that attracts me and what I want to show. This is new for me, but I think you have to push yourself in the ways of unknown and experiment for your work to progress. So to answer your question. I think there are multiple ways of present the story, even keep it open for interpretation - it depends on the photographer. I don’t think there are any rules here, as long as we don’t presented a false narrative - as we have seen has become sort of a staple in the internet era.
Kristina Bao: Do you have a dream theme/series you definitely going to complete as a photographer?
Dino Kužnik: I do have quite a few ideas and series I am currently working on. But I don’t like to talk about a work in progress as you have to give it time, so it sits for a while - so your idea or vision also matures and you see what works and what doesn’t. I think it’s not good to rush it. Just like a good hearty stew that simmers for a long time and it’s best after it sits in the fridge for a few days, you know.
Kristina Bao: Lastly, any advices or suggestions for young/emerging photographers?
Dino Kužnik: I think young people nowadays have this urgency of showing things right aways, because of social media … this instant gratification became a big problem. I think you need to be patient and self-critical with your work, open for negative critiques and be able learn from that. But if I have any advice it would be these things:
Support the artists you like and buy their work and/or photo books if you can, study them and their photography.
Talent is overrated, there is only hard work. So if you really love it, work hard on it. Do it every day if you can and you will eventually develop a style.
Go to gallery openings, take the time to read the artist statement, connect with like minded individuals and learn from them. Help each other. There is strength in numbers. Talk and analyze each others work.
A new camera won’t make your work better, only you have the power to do that
Work on personal projects and work will come eventually.
Push yourself through uncomfortable situations and you will come out accomplished and better. It feels great when you do something that scares you successfully. Strive for that feeling - the feeling of accomplishment.
And most important, do what brings joy and happiness to you
Trust your gut.
BY KRISTINA BAO
KRISTINA IS AN EDITORIAL CREATIVE BASED IN NYC.